Multitown broadband negotiating group loses another town

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SANDISFIELD — They were once four strong. Now, they are two — and with a combined population of 1,400.

Sandisfield and Tolland, which are struggling for a plan for broadband connections, have more challenges than most, said the chairman of Sandisfield's broadband committee.

"We have a lot of road and not a lot of [population] density," said Jeffrey Bye, speaking of the two neighboring towns left to continue negotiating with Frontier Communications after first Monterey, and more recently, New Marlborough, left a group wielding strength in numbers to seal a broadband deal.

Sandisfield's population is roughly 915; Tolland's is around 485. Bye said it is cost-prohibitive for these towns, alone, to try to build and own their own networks.

Monterey and New Marlborough are the more populous towns, which helped entice a company that, to build and operate a broadband network, will have to string many miles of fiber up and down these country roads.

Sandisfield, alone, has 90 miles of roadway.

The towns have been working with the Massachusetts Broadband Institute, which administers a last-mile funding program that has earmarked money for each town. It's designed to make sure the unserved, rural corners of the state get high-speed internet.

Bye said New Marlborough pulled out Nov. 30, citing Frontier's terms.

"That was a loss of 1,000 connections," he said.

The reason

The most recent plan that had included New Marlborough was unveiled in October, and had the MBI using the earmarked funds for each town to pay Frontier $4.77 million, plus an additional $1 million from the state. Then, over a period of 15 years, the towns would have paid Frontier $15.5 million to build and operate a fiber-to-the-home network to cover 96 percent of homes and businesses.

This plan would have saved Sandisfield, for instance, around $5 million.

But Richard Long, chairman of New Marlborough's broadband committee, said town officials were convinced that voters wouldn't have been able to swallow Frontier's final proposal.

"It became much more expensive than the original, and required a town guarantee of about $6.4 million upfront," Long said. "That's what killed that opportunity."

Most of that money, he said, would have been covered by subscribers over the 15-year period of the three-town contract. But the upfront guarantee was the problem.

"People said, 'Why would we approve a tax guarantee for that much money when we could approve something else for a lot less.'"

But the request for a town guarantee demonstrates, in part, why rural towns are in this broadband pickle — corporations are wary of trying to make a profit in low-population areas, and especially a company that has had financial problems over the past few years.

"Frontier has become much more conservative, and they don't want to take any risks," Long said.

Onward

Despite the loss of New Marlborough, Bye said he and other Sandisfield committee members aren't fretting. He's still optimistic about the possibilities, including a Frontier proposal.

"We're hoping our relationship with Frontier is good enough," he said.

Sandisfield Select Board Chairman John Skrip said Frontier might, any day now, come back with a proposal to build and run a fiber-optic network for the two towns to share. But Skrip said it could be harder to find an affordable proposal now that the more populous New Marlborough has exited the group.

"Three is better than two," he said.

Skrip said now he's hoping the MBI will find creative ways of helping the two towns, given their predicament.

"Something's got to give," he said. "Sandisfield is 59 square miles. That's stringing a lot of fiber, and [Frontier] will only have about 850 customers."

But now there are other possibilities, like a new MBI funding source, the Flexible Grant Program. According to the MBI, five companies are offering to serve at least 14 towns that are without access, including Sandisfield.

Both Crocker Communications, and Westfield Gas & Electric/Whip City Fiber submitted proposals for Sandisfield through this program. Bye said the committee is planning to meet with MBI officials soon to discuss this.

Skrip said the situation is critical — that low internet speeds are no longer an option for any town.

"It's like not having a telephone in today's society."

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter at @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.


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